Reconciling Steampunk With History

Friday, March 16, 2012

Nigel, Basil's little brother, dabbles in every science possible.
I personally greatly enjoy steampunk. It fascinates me to see speculative history - namely, what the Victorians would have done with our technology, albeit with their versions running on steam and other available power sources from the 19th century. In fact, I think it would be awfully fun to write a steampunk story at some point down the road. However, here's my problem - Londinium is strictly historical fiction, and I do a ton of research to make sure I get all of my details right. There's no place for science fiction in Londinium...

...or is there?

Turns out what I can do is include science fact. The easiest way for me to do that is, of course, more research. See the fellow in the post here? That's Nigel Remington, Basil's younger brother. Nigel explores everything. He dabbles in biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, ancient civilization, and even Babbage's difference engines (computers - really). Above all, Nigel's dream is to achieve powered flight, and whilst he won't be pulling that one off (some folks from Dayton, Ohio beat him to that in 1903), he tries every possible solution available to him in 1863. He's taught himself how to read hieroglyphics from other scholars' research, making him one of the few individuals in Britain at the time who can read them, and he eventually earns himself a position at the British Museum due to this skill. (He's the younger son and doesn't inherit the estate - Basil does - so he needed a job.)

Nigel wasn't going to be a very important character initially, but when I realized what I could explore with him he became much more prominent in redrafts. It's Nigel's brain that gets the cast through difficult situations a lot of the time, namely because he's so off-the-wall brilliant and thinks outside the box. If Londinium does well enough, I might even consider giving Nigel a Jules Verne-style spinoff series of his own just because it would be fun to write.

Nigel is perhaps the character who best embodies Victorian society's progressive, optimistic attitudes: as far as Nigel's concerned, science can get things done as long as you stick to it and keep exploring. Steampunk as a genre takes these attitudes and propels them in a science fiction direction, allowing the Victorian world to evolve into a mirror image of our modern society were it powered primarily by steam and not electricity. However, when you look at the things the Victorians were actually doing during the 19th century, steampunk really isn't too far off as a possibility. I mean, look at this thing:

This is Henson's Aerial Steam Carriage, also known as Ariel, in a painting from 1843.
Henson's Aerial Steam Carriage was patented in 1842. By 1848, a small mockup of the thing made successful flights in a hangar. Powered by steam, the machine was designed to ferry passengers like jet planes do today. Unfortunately, it was too heavy to properly lift off, much less carry people, but it was a step in the right direction. Oh, and this thing is real. Ariel existed. It looks a lot like something out of a Verne book, doesn't it?

There's plenty more examples out there, definitely. I won't put them all in one giant post, but they're out there. Basically, the point is that steampunk is closer to what actually happened than most people think it is - there's a ton of genuine history that is essentially 'real steampunk.' And that's the kind of steampunk you'll see from me.

Let's Talk Victorian Cartoons

Friday, March 9, 2012

This is Will Conrad. Will is a 19th century cartoonist.
Cartooning as an art form is a relatively recent development. In the Western world, cartooning emerged from the lithographic print, an art form that was wildly popular in the 18th century. 18th century lithographic prints were often grotesque caricatures of people and events, serving as a social commentary of sorts, much like political cartoons do today. I have an entire book on them in my personal library called City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in Eighteenth-Century London. It's one of the most-bookmarked resources I have regarding the history of humor. The lithographs contained within are graphic, scatological, sexual, and basically inappropriate. Today, we'd probably label them NSFW. In the 18th century, you could find them hanging in shop windows for all to see, however - people would gather around them, point and laugh, and discuss them. By the 1820s, however, the censors began to rear their ugly heads, and these prints disappeared off the market forever, with what would evolve into Victorian family values winning out. (Of course, there were still prints - they were just cleaner. That doesn't mean "not racist," "not sexist" or just plain "not wrong," but there's no sex or scat anywhere.)

By the time Londinium takes place in 1863, cartooning has evolved into a way to poke fun at society without being too offensive. Even the cartoons appearing in Punch aren't exactly hard satire anymore - they're just little commentaries on how strange fashion is or how odd it is that people take arsenic to look pale when it's actually going to potentially kill them. The perennial example, of course, is this one:

Arabella Maria: "Only to think, Julia dear, that our mothers wore such ridiculous fashions as these!"
Both: "Ha ha ha ha!"
That couldn't be further from what was being drawn just fifty years prior. It's much gentler. Satirical writing, too, had become much gentler, which is something that Basil constantly lamented about as a teenager at Eton in the 1850s. Basil's best friend at Eton, Will Conrad, was his illustrator. In order to rebel against comedic writing going soft, Basil wrote some very hardcore satire based on a rumor involving a teacher at the school who was strangely affectionate towards his horse. Although the 'Dirty Schoolboy Papers' were never published, Basil got his start as a satirical writer by penning them. In turn, Will, whose dream as a boy was to be a cartoonist, set out on his quest to be published by Punch.

Will doing what he does best: drawing porn.
By the time 1863 has rolled around, Will is working in London as a stockbroker, but he's still freelancing as a cartoonist in his spare time. He's also found a very grown-up way to rebel against the social mores of his society: collecting and parodying pornography. Will's fondness for the hilarity of purple prose combined with his enjoyment of going against the grain have turned him into something that most people would deplore in public, even though Victorians' private lives were far more sexual than anyone realizes. That's a post for another time, though.

Today, we use cartoons to make a statement, just like we did in the 18th and 19th centuries. What's considered appropriate to publish has changed over the years, certainly, but cartooning's purpose hasn't changed very much: it's there for us to say things that we can't always articulate with words. Pictures are supposedly worth 1,000 of 'em, after all. The only thing that's really changed is the techniques people use to draw and the things that we deem okay to show to the world. Cartoonists today can still get in trouble, of course, because there are certain lines you can't cross (remember the Danish cartoonist who drew Muhammad and what happened there?), but generally, things are more open today than they were in Will's day. We're probably not going back to the 18th century, mind you, but at the very least, artistic expression isn't something that gets censored very much anymore.

Will himself would be very, very proud.

Sketch Cards!

Saturday, March 3, 2012

I get to pimp the boys out in a public place on Saturday, March 17th, on which date I'll be at the Blick Art Materials in Paramus, New Jersey (it's on Route 4) doing an artist sketch card swap. Everyone participating got two cards each, so of course I ended up drawing Dustin and Basil on mine.

(This is the first time I've ever done sketch cards, so forgive me if they're not very good.)

I'm going to do a post on Victorian cartooning at some point soon since I've been back into that lately, so stay tuned! That will likely star Basil's school chum, my fellow cartoonist Will Conrad.

Londinium Art has a web home!

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Today I read the first book in the Hunger Games trilogy. It took me 5.5 hours. Specifically, it took even less time than that because I took a roughly 45-minute break for dinner. I'll be reading the next two soon, as well, because Suzanne Collins has an incredible grasp on how to pace a book to keep the reader hooked. Basically, I need to make sure you're all hooked on Londinium the same way. I sincerely hope I do my job and that ends up being the case...!

Anyhow, silly art that I draw relating to this book and its planned follow-ups now has its own internet home on my Nabyn account, so go check it out by clicking the picture of Basil and Dustin, won't you?